James Lawton: McCoy deserves to be favourite but surely Strauss should also be a runner in the BBC's top 10?
Strauss probably needs, like McCoy, the best part of two decades to get across that he is a man of exceptional performance
Tuesday 30 November 2010
Anyone wanting to dispute the right of A P McCoy to come in on the bridle as the BBC's Sports Personality of the Year is probably best doing it in the company of men dressed in white coats and armed with a few means of restraint.
Really it should be less of a vote and more a collective roar of approval. This, of course, does depend to some extent on what significance, if any, you place on something that over the years has often made as much a mockery as a celebration of the highest achievements in sport.
At least there has to be broad agreement in the matter of McCoy.
The relentless Irishman is more than one of the outstanding sportsmen of his generation. He is the definition of what you have to do, and how you have to be, on the way to becoming the ultimate practitioner of a thrilling and hazardous trade.
Jonjo O'Neill, who was pretty handy in the saddle when hitting the rising ground at Cheltenham in the company of Dawn Run, summed it up succinctly enough when he declared: "What you have to remember about AP is that, in the best possible way, he isn't human."
End of debate you might say – and so it is but for the curious absence of another runner among the shorter prices.
In the list of one leading bookmaker the world heavyweight champion David Haye is quoted at a respectable price despite the fact that, in his entire career in the division which was once the battleground of Muhammad Ali, he still hasn't faced anyone who might be described as a remotely serious opponent.
Paul Scholes, a footballer of wonderful consistency down the years but not a winner this year and not even someone who has worked hard on creating a cult of the personality, is also in the group behind McCoy.
There is, however, little or no trace among the front-runners of a quote against the name of Andrew Strauss.
This indicates two things. One is that, like AP, he doesn't play the personality game. Another is that Engand's cricket captain probably needs, in the same way as this year's certain winner, the best part of two decades to get across the message that he is a man of exceptional performance.
What has also seemed so evident here these last few days is that Strauss is rather more interested in creating a new era of English cricket, one not marked by a pattern of fleeting win and wretched loss, of hubris and contrition, than competing in some endless personality parade.
After scoring his 19th Test century on Sunday – and guiding his team to a position of psychological strength almost entirely unimaginable in the 23 years since Mike Gatting led England to their last Ashes win on Australian soil – Strauss insisted that his team must live in the present. They must not presume anything of this tour but the need for hard work.
Strauss, plainly, is no Freddie Flintoff, who won the BBC award in the wake of England's Ashes win in 2005 and got up in the middle of the night in Pakistan, shortly before an important match, to receive it live on a link with London.
The reigning captain is no more likely to take an early-morning pedalo ride, while feeling somewhat tired and emotional in the middle of a World Cup, than he is to become worse for wear at Downing Street.
Freddie is Freddie, of course, and nothing less than a national monument to a big nature and a big talent, but maybe the difference between the acclaim he receives and that little coming Strauss's way is instructive.
Perhaps it reflects a certain difficulty in understanding that, if some achievement is gained not in spectacular bursts but the accumulation of effort and thought and discipline over many years, it is no less worthy of at least one night under the lights.
Strauss, we can all be sure, would not have been spending too much time over the next few weeks checking the betting market back home had he been a contender – not when he has Ricky Ponting and his Australians looking so vulnerable against the ropes in their own ring. He will be working on the project that he took up in such unpromising circumstances when Kevin Pietersen, an extraordinary choice in preference to him, proved that his impressive talents did not quite stretch to the leadership of sportsmen operating under anything like serious pressure.
Strauss's most discouraging moment came at the Wanderers in Johannesburg at the start of this year when the chance to win an important series on foreign soil was squandered along with some of the momentum of the Ashes win of the previous summer. His response, however, has been unerringly committed to the challenge of keeping a winning team together with the right competitive instincts.
One bonus was a disciplined and mature reaction to the emotional horror of the Pakistani betting episode, when such reactions as outrage and contempt would have seriously worsened an already desperate situation. It was the kind of thoughtful performance Strauss put into rebuilding a team that could so easily have been broken by the manner of Pietersen's downfall. Here, we may be seeing the first steps of a defining achievement.
After being dismissed by the third delivery of the first innings in the Test just concluded, Strauss admitted to some moments of mental agony when he waited for the decision referral which saved his wicket after the first ball of the second innings. "I suppose I would have been in my worst ever place in the game if that had gone against me," he said after scoring the century that gave England the new belief that at last they are fighting in Australia on favourable, maybe even advantageous, terms.
How do you really measure the depth of such achievement? How do you add up the days and the weeks and the years that went into a man gathering his nerve and knowledge of how to do a most demanding job – and also play some of the best sport of his life? However many ways there are, voting in a popularity contest is probably not one of them.
O'Connor's bright talent mined from a dwindling seam
It is not so easy to overstate the relief felt here when the Wallabies recovered from their thrashing by England at Twickenham to overrun the French in Paris.
Particularly heart-warming for the local audience – aghast at the failure of the Australian bowling attack against England in the opening Ashes game – was the running of 21-year-old James O'Connor, who was born just along the Gold Coast from here, where England cricket teams used to abandon all hope as soon as they entered the city limits.
O'Connor represents a dwindling factor in Australia that used to be considered the ultimate banker – a steady stream of wonderfully precocious young sportsmen. Now the nation that gave us the phenomenal Ian Thorpe can no longer furnish a single No 1 in world swimming.
Most depressing of all now the Ashes are under way is the failure to find the new Shane Warne after attempts of ever-increasing desperation. Xavier Doherty, who won his first baggy green cap here and bowled worthily and stoically in the face of England's withering second innings total of 517 for 1, is deemed no more than a 50-50 shot to grow into the challenge. Worse still, he is 28.
Beckham's image still well reflected
Say what you like about the reality, or otherwise, of David Beckham's football greatness, but who could ever question his genius for maintaining an image?
Here, for example, is the view of one major Australian newspaper: "He might be a $125m poster boy more renowned for off-field endorsements these days, but there is more to David Beckham than meets the eye. The former England and Manchester United great showed that when it comes to his football he is still the ultimate warrior, a class act and the supreme professional."
This was the view at the weekend when Newcastle Jets of the A-League played the touring Los Angeles Galaxy. Beckham was nursing at least three separate injuries and could hardly break into a run but he was, of course, the major reason why 23,000 fans showed up to watch the Jets win 2-1. How does the "ultimate warrior" and the "supreme professional" continue to do it at the age of 35? Maybe it's smoke and mirrors.
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